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07 June 2018

Three-year STOP-MS study results

Dr Jonathan White gives his view on the three-year follow up results of the STOP-MS study which aims to investigate whether people with MS who attend lifestyle retreats, show improvement in symptoms after adapting their lifestyles.

Fresh from the Neuroepidemiology Unit at the University of Melbourne, the research hub for all things Overcoming MS, there is more reason to be happy and grateful today.

The follow-up data from a sample of those people attending one of our five-day residential retreats in Victoria, Australia, has shown significantly improved mental and physical health outcomes, fewer relapses and stabilization of their disability three years later.

There was on average an 8-9% improvement in physical and mental health scores, so people were telling us that they felt on average almost 10% better than when they came to the retreat.

Remember that MS is associated with progressive decline over time, not improvement! One of the most exciting and impressive results to come out of the statistics was in terms of relapse rate.

While 70% of participants had experienced a relapse in the year before the retreat, in the year after the retreat, only 16% had a relapse! At the three-year mark, this had increased to 26% but was still significantly lower than the baseline (both statistically and clinically).

This is a really important observation, and should fuel the fire of research into the role of lifestyle modification in managing MS. In terms of disability, although not statistically significant, there was actually a decrease in disability score in the sample group.

So for the group, their disability didn’t get any worse, and in fact, their progression stabilized. This is a key concern for people with MS. So overall, people were changing their lifestyle behavior, maintaining it over a medium to long period of time and their health improved in parallel! I fully recognize that the skeptics will cite the usual arguments about these results;

  • that there was no control group to prove that the results wouldn’t have happened anyway in a group with MS over three years without doing anything (but really, how often does that actually happen by chance to a large group of people with MS? We all know the natural history of MS is progressive decline)
  • these highly motivated and educated people with MS are not representative of the “average pwMS”

Whilst technically correct, these criticisms must be viewed in the appropriate context. It is a perennial problem in lifestyle modification studies to have a control or placebo group – it’s very difficult to have a placebo version of a diet, “fake” exercise or “dummy” meditation.

It is of course possible to give people a placebo version of vitamin D and flaxseed oil, if ethically approved. The issue of motivation is a really interesting one. We already know that people who follow the Overcoming MS Program are not typical of the average pwMS, and we shouldn’t be apologetic for that.

We have the drive and determination to do “whatever it takes” to fight this disease, and that is one of the great strengths of our worldwide community. Studies have repeatedly shown that this type of person will do better in a range of diseases, including cancer and heart disease, not just MS.

It seems that having the belief that you can heal can alter your immune chemistry and help you achieve exactly that. It’s one of the reasons why we focus so much on meditation and mind-body medicine within Overcoming MS.

The fact that most of the people attending the retreat will likely have done so because they had active disease and/or had already changed their lifestyle and wanted more information or support to do even better, actually makes the results all the more impressive.

If your baseline measurement is already artificially high, and the disease quite active, then surely any improvements achieved are even more impressive and significant?! This is exactly what was found in this study. I hope this reinforces your belief in the Overcoming MS program, and for those of you considering attending a retreat, maybe now your mind has been made up?

Dr Jonathan White

More on these results: Lead Researcher Dr Claudia Marck’s view on 3 year STOP-MS results

Full paper: Marck CH, De Livera AM, Brown CR, Neate SL, Taylor KL, Weiland TJ, et al. (2018) Health outcomes and adherence to a healthy lifestyle after a multimodal intervention in people with multiple sclerosis: Three year follow-up. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0197759.

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